The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: May 27, 2007 - June 2, 2007

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Chasing Marilyn Monroe

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Photographs by Larry Harnisch Los Angeles Times
The "Wrong Door Raid" apartments at Waring Avenue and Kilkea Drive, May 27, 2007

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June 2, 1957
Los Angeles

Let's suppose you are an American baseball legend being divorced by your beautiful Hollywood actress wife. Let's further suppose that you see her car parked outside a small apartment house near Melrose and Crescent Heights late one night in 1954.

Naturally, you decide to break down the door and catch her in the act with another man, even though you have a less than 50-50 chance of breaking into the right apartment.

Of course, you call some private detectives. And being an American baseball legend, an Italian American baseball legend, your chums include a well-known Italian American singer.

Out comes the ax and down goes the door at 8122 Waring Ave.

Uh-oh.

Instead of catching Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and various companions (including Frank Sinatra) terrified Florence Kotz Ross.

Who was asleep.

By herself.

"Mrs. Ross was fast asleep about 11 p.m. when five or six men suddenly battered down the back door to her apartment, tearing it from its hinges and leaving glass strewn on the floor," The Times said. "Immediately ... a bright flash of light was shone in her eyes and she was confronted with a number of men, some of whom seemed to be carrying an instrument which at first sight she believed to be an ax."

Wrong_door_8120 The men fled and Ross reported the incident to police as a burglary. Then Confidential magazine published a story about the raid in its February 1957 issue, touching off the Legislature's investigation of scandal magazines and private detectives.  Ross learned the identities of the raiders when one of the private detectives, Philip Irwin, told the story to the investigative committee and the grand jury.

Sinatra received similar treatment when he was served with a subpoena in Palm Springs at 4 a.m. on Feb. 16, 1957, and he filed a complaint with the LAPD about the incident. Although his testimony was contradicted by others, Sinatra was adamant that he remained in a Cadillac parked outside the complex during the raid.

Private detective Barney Ruditsky, Irwin's boss, testified before the grand jury that Sinatra and DiMaggio remained outside while he and Irwin broke down the door. During the investigation, Irwin testified that he had been beaten up by six men after he told an official of the State's Bureau of Private Investigators and Adjusters his version of the raid. He also testified that he hadn't sold the details to Confidential magazine.

In September 1958, the "wrong door" lawsuit against DiMaggio, Sinatra, Irwin, Ruditsky, Patsy D'Amore and John Seminola was settled for $7,500 ($53,739.63 USD 2006).

And where was Monroe during all of this? Next door, visiting girlfriend Sheila Stewart Renour at 8120 Waring.

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Riot at Virginia Tech

1957_0601_miller June 1, 1957
Los Angeles

In Washington, Arthur Miller is found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to reveal who else attended a Communist meeting in 1947. In an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller, the playwright and husband of Marilyn Monroe, admitted being at the meeting but said his conscience prevented him from saying who else was there. Federal Judge Charles E. McLaughlin allowed Miller to remain free on bail pending his sentence.

In Blacksburg, Va., a riot by 300 Virginia Tech students is halted when the student band plays "Dixie." The students were protesting the city's plans to annex part of the campus.

In Los Angeles, Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling continues to speak out against testing nuclear weapons. He says that even minute quantities of radiation released by the blasts raise the risk of genetic damage, bone cancer and leukemia.

Also in Los Angeles, U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge vows to continue blocking China's admission to the United Nations. "We've blocked Red China's entry into the U.N. 34 times since I've been at the U.N.," he tells The Times. "That's one of my assignments." Noting that there are more U.N. members now, Lodge says: "The job gets harder all the time. But we get it done."

Lodge also said that making peace in the world would aid the U.S. economy and help cut taxes. "The only way to get real economy,  to hope for a real tax reduction,  is to reduce the tensions that breed war and eventually reduce our expenses for military items.  Sixty  percent of our expenses are for support of the military,"  Lodge said.

And at the Ambassador Hotel, thousands of bridge players are gathering for the 23rd annual Bridge Week, sponsored by the American Contract Bridge League.

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Below, Longwood Estates, Long Beach and Arestia boulevards. This cleanly designed piece stands out from most of the real estate display ads in The Times. There's no architect's drawings or floor plans, just crisp type and a photograph of a happy couple with lots of white space. A forward-looking piece of work.

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Matt Weinstock

Matt_weinstockd_2 June 1, 1957

A rewrite man assigned to vacation relief on the police beat was shown around the new police building the other day.

As he entered a padded cell he was told to feel how soft the walls were.

When he turned around he was alone.

"Hey, where'd everybody go?" he yelled.

His pals left him there for an hour.

Girl in coma

 

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1957_0531_payette_pixMay 31, 1957
Long Beach

Suzanne was supposed to have a simple bit of surgery. Didn't everyone get their tonsils out? The 15-year-old went into St. Mary's Hospital in Long Beach on May 31, 1956, but during the operation, her heart stopped. Doctors opened her chest and massaged her heart. But it was too late. By the time her heart resumed beating, her brain had gone too long without oxygen and she suffered irreversible damage.

Days passed, and then weeks. The Times wrote about others who had fallen into comas. There was 12-year-old Herbie Gray of South Pasadena, who was riding his bicycle and got hit by a truck Nov. 28, 1955, and Mrs. William Wrigley, who suffered a stroke Dec. 23, 1947, and was kept alive by what was considered "a medical miracle."

Suzanne's mother said: "She seems to be trying to tell us something."

Her care was extremely costly and her father, Lyle, a furniture salesman, used up all the family's money. "I have borrowed from everyone we know," he said. "There is nowhere else to turn."

Suzanne's story touched the hearts of many people in Los Angeles and across the country. Anonymous benefactors donated money as well as football tickets for charity raffles. Schoolchildren raised $884 in nickels and dimes. Her parents brought a $1.5-million lawsuit ($10,747,925.65 USD 2006) against the hospital, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, but The Times didn't cover the outcome of the suit. 

"People have been wonderful, but there's so far to go to meet the cost of Suzanne's bills," said her younger brother, Lyle Jr., 11. 

"Suzanne seems to be making progress," her father said after she had been in a coma for three months. "Physically, she appears fairly good. We think she recognizes us when we enter her room. She breaks out in a sweat and seems to get excited."

But after six months of hospital care, she was no better and her parents brought her home to 2728 Ostrom Ave., Long Beach, to be tended by her mother and father.  "At least we can give her 24-hour care and try to make her comfortable," her mother said. "We can do no more."

"Our insurance money is used up, our borrowings are gone and donations from kind people have been used up also," her father said.

1957_0531_payette_pix02 "My wife believes that occasionally Suzanne recognizes her for a moment," he said. "And at times she seems to have some expression in her face. She doesn't talk, but she will make sounds."

On May 31, 1957, the first anniversary of her operation, The Times offered no hope of her recovery.

The Payette family, which also included another daughter, Sally, apparently moved to Minnesota. Lyle and Isabelle Payette died in 1986. Judging by online genealogical records, Suzanne spent 20 years in a coma before dying in 1976.

Herbie Gray died March 3, 1957, without regaining consciousness. Ada Wrigley died Dec. 16, 1958, at the Wrigley mansion in Pasadena.

However, The Times also wrote about a "miracle man." His name was Melvin Eugene Hewitt and in 1951, he was revived after hitting his head on the sidewalk during a brawl outside an El Monte bar. He was considered dead on arrival at El Monte Medical Center, but two doctors cut open his chest and massaged his heart. After six weeks in a coma, Hewitt regained consciousness, although he suffered brain damage.

In 1957, his mother, Mabel Werrett, told The Times: "He is a religious man and he speaks with conviction. I place a lot of faith in his words."

She quoted him: "Someday soon, Mom, I will be completely cured and my mind will be as normal as when I had my accident."

Melvin Eugene Hewitt died Dec. 28, 1987, at the age of 63, 36 years after he was given up for dead.

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Killing in Alhambra

 

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Photographs by Larry Harnisch Los Angeles Times
22 Champion Place, Alhambra, Calif.

 
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1957_0531_picture_3 May 30, 1957
Alhambra

Yeah, we're back in Alhambra, parked on the pinched, narrow street outside 22 Champion Place, a quirky, old two-story house built in 1910. It used to belong to a Western artist named Frank Tenney Johnson, who died in 1939.

His wife, Vinnie, died in  December 1956, and since they had no children, she left everything to her sister, Evalyn, and her son, James. Evalyn had been living by herself at the house since 1952, when she divorced her husband, Clarence, a janitor for the Monrovia school district, and her sister went into a sanitarium.

Let's go inside. Keep your hands in your pockets and don't move anything. Notice as we head toward the house that there's a little building to the side with a basement. I think that was Johnson's studio, but that's just a guess. It could be a garage.

How about that? The front door is unlocked. The house is loaded with Johnson's paintings--lots and lots of cowboys.

Notice the vacuum cleaner, and a couple of cushions that have been pulled off the sofa, as if someone was doing housework. There's a TV tray upset on a pile of newspapers.

Let's go upstairs and look in the bedroom.

That's Evalyn in the bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. Her son will tell the papers that her face is black. She was 67.

Police will find out that she's entirely dressed except for one shoe. Her hands are tied tightly behind her back with a piece of wire with brown plastic insulation.  She's been strangled with some pink cloth that was apparently torn from a woman's half-slip. The medical examiner, Dr. Frederick Newbarr, will find that she was knocked unconscious first.

 

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1957_champion02 Let's go out into what I'll call the studio. Norman Rockwell spent a few weeks working here in 1945. Now it's full of old junk. The only thing new is down in the basement: another piece of wire, with yellow plastic insulation instead of brown, and connectors on either end.

That's about all we know. Evalyn's son, James Ash, and daughter-in-law, Lois, live across the street in a house set way back on the lot. Lois saw her mother-in-law this morning when Evalyn stepped out of the house to get the newspaper. This evening, they're supposed to go to San Gabriel Cemetery and put flowers on Vinnie's grave. Apparently they were going to go earlier in the day, but Evalyn decided to visit the cemetery at night so she could spend the day at Hollywood Park.

Van Wormer, her ex-husband, says he talked to her on the phone about once every six weeks. Otherwise he  hadn't had any contact with her. A high school kid takes care of the yard, but he was in school when she was killed.

Evalyn's slaying has never been solved. She is buried at San Gabriel Cemetery. Maybe we should stop there on the way out.

We better get going. The police will be here any minute.

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Fireball engulfs desert

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Photograph by the Associated Press
"A furiously boiling ball of fire, measuring 900 feet from edge to edge, churns with awesome grandeur at the Nevada atom bomb test site. The blast, which was set off on a 500-foot tower, was photographed from a distance of 11 miles."

May 29, 1957
Atomic Test Site, Nev.

The Associated Press captured the explosion in well-wrought, anonymous prose. One of 40 reporters and photographers, accompanied by 14 NATO observers and some civil defense workers, the AP writer described the detonation of the 10-kiloton bomb 500 feet above the Nevada desert on a steel tower:

"The fireball devoured the the tower and shot skyward wrapped in an ugly garment of smoke. A shuddering sound wave rolled off the desert.

"The column of smoke spilled over into the awesome mushroom. And there it hung, churning and thrashing, until dissipated by gentle wind.

"The wind stretched the mushroom and its trunk into long, narrow clouds and bore them to the northwest. When a low, gray haze lifted from the explosion area, test personnel found only stubs of the tower's legs, about four feet high, remaining in the ground. Some lower portions of the tower had fallen onto the sand when the upper section was turned into atomic dust."

But rather than a poetic description, the thrust of the story was about how safe it was to explode atomic devices in the atmosphere. The AP writer made a point of noting that "safety-conscious scientists" had waited for days until the weather was exactly right for testing an atomic bomb. In fact, the writer said, this series of tests was the safest since atomic blasts began at the Nevada test site in 1951.

"As the blast's 35,000-foot mushroom cloud broke up, turned pink under the sun's first rays and floated lazily away, Test Manager James E. Reeves said:

"The heavy fallout is in the test area. Only light, long-delayed fallout will result in off-site areas."

The writer noted that 31 aircraft immediately entered the test area to track the cloud. It was all so safe, the writer said. After all, this 10-kiloton explosion, with only half the force of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was from "a low-powered member of the United States nuclear weapon family."

A little detective work shows that Times aviation writer Marvin Miles had been sent to Nevada to cover the tests, known as Operation Plumbbob, but excessive winds forced prolonged delays. Miles filed story after story about how the tests were postponed and apparently The Times brought him home and decided to use AP.

Here's the original press release on the blast, which was code-named "Boltzmann."

Here's a link to the National Security Archive's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.

Here's a map of the radioactive cloud's track across the U.S.

 

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Photograph courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory

Perfectly safe, folks, this was just a little one.

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Times political cartooning B.C. (Before Conrad) on Memorial Day. 

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Neumann on the Mideast, Part 19

Note: In early 1957, The Times sent UCLA professor Robert G. Neumann on a six-week tour of the Middle East. Neumann, who was later the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Morocco, wrote these stories upon his return. His son, Ronald, is U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Part 19, March 31, 1957

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Maid held in murder

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1957_0528_mintz_2May 28, 1957
Los Angeles

Former Nazi prisoner 33822 sat at the defense table, her hands clasped tightly.  Her light blue cotton dress was wilted from the heat and her dab of lipstick only accented her jail pallor. Police said Laja Minc, who lost a father, stepmother, two sisters and a brother at Auschwitz, was a thief. Police said Laja Minc, 36, who used the name Linda Mintz, she was a brutal killer.

She was liberated Feb. 13, 1946, and brought to the U.S. on May 2, 1952, The Times said. There was a brief postwar marriage that resulted in a son, Alex, who was now 11.

Mintz had worked as a maid in the homes of several Los Angeles families that felt sorry for her. But she always stole from them and was eventually fired.

Her latest employer was Thelma Macomber, 42, who lived with her husband, contractor Fred S. Macomber, at 11920 Laurel Hills Road in Studio City. Thelma's 65-year-old mother, Irene Sampson, also lived in the home with her new husband, Robert M. Sampson, 28.

It was Robert who found Thelma's body in the bedroom. Her skull was bashed in and the bed had been set on fire. He tried to revive her, but she died at North Hollywood Receiving Hospital.

During the investigation, Mintz said that a freelance photographer who visited the home a week before had gone into the bedroom and argued with the victim. Upon reading the account in the newspapers, Max Tatch, 53, contacted police and said he had been to the home the week before to photograph the exterior but denied any allegations that he had returned.

At the police station, Mintz positively identified Tatch as having been at the home and he was arrested. Investigators had trouble verifying Tatch's movements on the day of the killing. He had been at a camera shop earlier in the day but had spent most of the afternoon sorting negatives at his apartment and could not provide any witnesses. Polygraph tests were administered to Mintz and Tatch, but the results were inconclusive.

1957_0528_macomber Tatch was released and Mintz was charged with homicide after police chemist Ray Pinker performed a detailed analysis of the badly damaged push vacuum cleaner taken from the Macomber home. Analysis found fatty tissue and broken teeth in the appliance and its sharp edges matched wounds on the body.

A search of Mintz's room revealed a cache of items stolen from her employers: silver spoons, kitchenware, bedding, hand-embroidered doilies, cut-glass stemware, silver trays, jewelry, a fur, sheets, a Paris gown and spike-heeled shoes.

Mintz insisted that Tatch was the killer, even though Irene Sampson insisted that Mintz never saw Tatch when he visited the home and therefore had no idea what he looked like.

At her first trial, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental hospital. Pronounced sane a few months later, she was retried, but the jury deadlocked. Rather than undertake a third trial, the district attorney's office dropped the homicide charges.

Courtroom spectators applauded as Mintz was released after 22 months in  jail.

In 1960, Laja Minc, a.k.a. Linda Mintz, was arrested for shoplifting from a grocery store at 1020 S. Crenshaw Blvd.

According to the Social Security Death Index, Laja Mintz died in August 1981 in Hennepin, Minn.  Social Security records say Laja Mintz was born in 1916, which would have made her 41 at the time of the killing rather than 36. 

Fred S. Macomber died Jan. 7, 2002, in Santa Monica, according to Social Security records. Thelma Macomber is buried at Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park.

In a letter to The Times, Tatch thanked his friends and clients for their support and newspapers for their fairness while he was  being investigated in the killing.

"I wish to pay tribute to the fine men of the Van Nuys detective department who worked so hard and left no clue unturned to prove conclusively that I was innocent," he wrote.

"Such men as Lt. Ernest Johnston and Detectives Stewart, Kealy, Hoakum and Nelson are a credit to the community and their profession. Any innocent person  who comes before these excellent officers  will receive a square deal  and courteous treatment, providing, of course, he or she is willing to be helpful and co-operative, as I tried my best to be."

 

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Photograph by Max Tatch, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1947 

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Random shot

I passed this building on Melrose en route to the "Wrong Door Raid" apartment house.

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Photograph by Larry Harnisch Los Angeles Times

Countdown to Watts

1957_0527_ucla May 27, 1957
Los Angeles

In eight years, the city will explode in the Watts riots of August 1965 and white Los Angeles will ask itself what happened.  Look, for instance, at how the Mirror portrays integration at UCLA, which is held up as a model program. (Except, for example, hints such as the orientation program for students from Africa and Asia about why they can't find a place to live in Los Angeles).

But delve into the microfilm, fellow Caucasians, and read the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle, two African American weeklies. Even a brief scan of the black newspapers in 1957 reveals a boiling cauldron of righteous anger:  Teachers cannot get jobs in many Los Angeles County school districts because they are African American. Black employees are laid off from skilled jobs at North American Aviation and offered new positions--as janitors. Blacks picket local stores that refuse to hire African Americans.

Worst of all, a subpoena of Police Chief William H. Parker in a series of police brutality cases brought by the NAACP is ignored in a shameful conspiracy of silence by the white media. In fact, the lone white newsman to profile the situation, radio announcer Lew Irwin, is told that his feature on the matter is being killed because it is "too controversial."

In the summer of 1957, eight years before the Watts riots, the Los Angeles Sentinel ran a series titled: "Does Los Angeles Have a Negro Leader?" The short answer was no.

History doesn't get any uglier than this.

To be continued....

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Boy kills drunk father

 

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1957_0527_johson_pix02 May 27, 1957
Maywood

Drunk again, Harold L. Johnson, 43, lay passed out on a bed at 3069 Prospect Ave. in Maywood. His wife, Agnes,  38, helped herself to some money in his pocket.

When Johnson came to and began beating his wife, as he often did, she called police and ran to a nearby motorcycle shop where their 15-year-old son, Lester, worked.

"If he comes back, I'll have him arrested," Agnes said. "You won't have to," Lester replied. "I have a billy club and will take care of things myself."

Police warned Lester not to attack his father. But when Harold Johnson returned and resumed beating his wife, Lester retaliated.

"I decided to do it my way," he said, according to the Mirror. He warned his father not to beat his mother. Then, "I hit him as many times and as hard as I could," he said.

Police found Harold Johnson unconscious with 10 deep cuts in his head. He was taken to Maywood Hospital but refused to be transferred to General Hospital, so he was released. His last act was to go to the Maywood police station and demand that his son be freed.

The next day, the Maywood Fire Department received an emergency call and arrived at the Johnson house to find Lester trying in vain to revive his father. He was dead. Lester Johnson, a sophomore at Bell High School, was taken to the police station and charged with murder.

On June 10 1957, a coroner's jury found that the death was excusable homicide. According to Dr. Frederick Newbarr, Harold Johnson died of a hemorrhage due to the cuts on his head and alcoholism.

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